The deaths of his children and his first wife had a profound and permanent effect on Verdi. In addition, he was a dutiful son himself, always acknowledging the debt he had to his father for recognizing and nurturing his talent and for providing him with a remarkably good education. But that relationship frayed when Verdi found another woman with which to share his life, Giuseppina Strepponi, a woman whom his father could never accept.
In contrast with his stern father, Antonio Barezzi, his devoted father-in-law supported and nurtured that aspect of Verdi’s life. If Carlo Verdi was his model for the bad father, Antonio Barezzi exemplified the good father.
In no other opera are the two fathers contrasted more than in Luisa Miller (1849), adapted by Salvadore Cammarano from Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love) (1784) by Friedrich Schiller. Verdi stripped Schiller’s drama of any political dimension to concentrate on family matters. Count Walter epitomizes the stern father Verdi knew first hand, the father who causes his son untold pain. Walter acknowledges the mutuality of the pain: “Paternal love is not a source of sweetness to this soul of mine. God, indignant, has made it for me a horrible suffering, punishment of hell!” Verdi felt so strongly about fathers and sons that he eliminates the scene of reconciliation found in Schiller’s play.
If Walter is the bad father, Miller is the good father. His love for Luisa is pure and intense and, unlike Walter’s, it is entirely selfless. The happiness of Luisa is his sole concern; he lives for his daughter. Miller acknowledges his almost divine role: “On earth a father resembles God through his goodness, not his severity.”
Around the core of contrasting fathers Verdi weaves a compelling drama of female innocence, the destruction of love, jealousy, loss, family honor, and the abuse of authority.
The plot begins with two young people in love – Luisa, daughter of a retired soldier and Rodolfo, the local Count’s son in disguise. When Rodolfo’s love is revealed, his father forbids him to see his low-born sweetheart while she is duped into declaring her love for Wurm, the Count’s weaselly steward. Result: tears, trauma, a poisoned chalice and a drawn-out double death scene.
Luisa is played brilliantly by Sonya Yoncheva, who with this role completes the dying diva trifecta of Tosca, Mimi, and Luisa. What is remarkable about Ms. Yoncheva’s work is that each character is so distinct as to solidify Ms. Yoncheva’s position as one of, if not the, finest actors on the operatic stage today. For Luisa she seems to take the reference to the character as “an angel in exile” in that Yoncheva’s Luisa lives simultaneously in heaven and on earth. She is equally devoted to both her earthly father, father number one, and her heavenly father, father number two. In fact, her focus is never quite in the here and now; she sees more than just the material world. And in situations where other characters would panic, tremble, anguish, her Luisa has faith that her God is in charge and will not forsake her. In fact, Luisa prays throughout the opera, making her, next to Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, the most praying character in the opera repertory. To see Ms. Yoncheva’s performance is a rare treat because such a character is almost never dared. But she dared and triumphs.
Near octogenarian Placido Domingo essays the role of father number one, Luísa’s earthy father. Having played Rodolfo in his youth, the actor’s years of experience resonate through everything he does and sings. His performance, especially his relationship with daughter Louisa, is a highlight of the production.
Piotr Beczala brings the house down with his performance of Rodolfo. The vocal and dramatic arcs for the character are staggeringly difficult. Nevertheless, he seems to sail through them both as the audience sits agape and applauding. Never has the famous betrayal aria “Quando le sere” been sung as powerfully or to as much acclaim.
The rest of the ensemble hold up the proceedings quite well under revival director Gregory Keller’s leadership, especially Dmitry Belosselskiy ‘s Worm and Alexander Vinogradov’s Count Walter, father number three. Their bass duet is wonderful
Conductor Bertrand de Billy led a vigorous and hard-driving interpretation of the score. The overture alone deserved an ovation.
From its very first production the Metropolitan Opera stage has had problems with scene changes. What is inexcusable now is the length of the changes. Other theatrical venues seek to make design and directorial choices when planning an production to keep things moving along. The Met should get with the program in that regard.